Two Great Tastes That Taste Great Together!

If there are two things this blog should've made clear I enjoy, it's Warhammer 40,000 and all things futuristic. So when I learned from Bell of Lost Souls, which learned from the Huffington Post, that Games Workshop had issued Digital Millenium Copyright Act-backed take-down notices over 3D printer models of a Dreadnought, a Leman Russ and a Sentinel, well, we were clearly in Reese Peanut Butter Cup territory, people!

Pictured: My Wheelhouse.

I don't blame Games Workshop for issuing these notices; they have to protect their business interests. And since Games Workshop has routinely defended their somewhat lacklustre rule-sets on the basis of their being 'just' a model company, obviously anything that threatens the income they get from their models is going to be a serious concern for them. And while all manner of commentators went on about how information wants to be free and GW needs to move with the times and it's just fan artwork and the like, at the end of the day this wasn't a 3D printer model of 'stumpy-legged fighting robot', but rather something that is very clearly a Space Marine Dreadnought with a close combat weapon and a multi-melta.

But as much as I understand why Games Workshop is doing what it's doing, and even support them in this particular case, it's the larger issue that really intrigues me. 3D printing isn't at the level of Star Trek's replicator yet, but as the dreadnought shows it's also a lot further along than I think a lot of people believed. In another five or ten years it's entirely probable that there will be 3D printers, available to the average consumer for a few hundred dollars from a reputable source (like Best Buy or Future Shop or the like), that will be able to turn out small items quickly, cheaply and with reasonably good fidelity. And when that happens, something very interesting is going to happen.

Yeah, y'know.  'Interesting'.

The driving force behind current economic reasoning is scarcity, either actually or artificially constructed. If a thing exists in only limited quantities, no matter how high the limit might be, the theory is that you need a price mechanism in place to determine distribution. But we've started to see what happens when there is no limit to the quantities available, thanks to services like iTunes, and even what happens when products can be replicated without ever involving a producer, thanks to torrents and file-sharing services. To date that hasn't been a huge issue, despite what the MPAA/RIAA would have you believe, because the movies and music being copied represent relatively tiny assaults on the overall market, and because physical materials still offer a compelling argument in their favour (such as liner notes for cds or special features and commentary tracks for dvds). But that won't always be true, and as we move away from creative/cultural goods to physical ones being 'pirated', the equation is going to shift more and more heavily in favour of the private citizen and away from the corporate entity.

Which sounds wonderful, right? After all, what's more like The Man than corporations? Down with them, and we'll all somehow be prosperous and happy and we'll never need to work a sixty-hour week for minimum wage again! But for all their flaws, and good gods and goddesses do they have so very, very many, corporations are absolutely central to the current construction of the economy. You can't just do away with them without throwing huge numbers of people out of work, and we saw from the Great Recession that even just throwing relatively small numbers of people out of work can completely wreck things for everyone. But you can't just un-invent something; 3D printers exist, and they're only going to get better and better, putting more and more pressure on the vast number of jobs involved in the production, marketing and distribution of physical goods, whether directly or indirectly. Games Workshop can issue take-down notices to Pirate Bay, but as noted they haven't gone after almost the exact same files on Google, and if a player isn't interested in participating in GW-organized tournaments there's very little that could compel them to buy GW models rather than just print off their own

I think the future is going to run something along these lines. 3D printers will put such a squeeze on physical goods, from models to cookware to clothing, that the traditional 'store' will largely be a thing of the past. Those entities that retain physical spaces will do so because having a communal space available for their customers benefits them. GW stores, for example, will probably do away with most of their stock, but continue to host tournaments, demos, painting classes and the like, because those services complement their overall business plan. Those industries that don't need physical space, however, will turn from selling the finished product to selling the plans for the product (backed up by the strongest, most stringent IP-protection laws imaginable), scaling down from massive organizations to teams of designers, sculptors, market researchers and the like. And new industries will spring up around the production of the 'matter packs' for 3D printers, with groups offering a wide variety of materials backed up by a wide variety of claims to their quality.

It may sound like things basically stay the way they are, but make no mistake, this will be a change on the scale of the Industrial Revolution itself. Indeed, it will likely be something along the lines of the Industrial Revolution in reverse, a transition away from major, centralized production systems and back to 'cottage industries' and individual economic performance. It will be just as jarring, just as upsetting, and quite probably just as violent in its own way, as the Industrial Revolution was. Indeed, I won't be at all surprised to find my children's children learning about the social upheaval and even disintegration that characterized the early decades of the twenty-first century, brought about by things like (but certainly not limited to) 3D printers, file sharing, increasingly powerful telecommunications infrastructure and computer processing power. As a young man I completely expect to live through some of the most wrenching dislocations my society has ever endured, and the fact that I believe that a better tomorrow is waiting on the other side is really the only comfort I can imagine for what I suspect is coming in the not-too-distant future.

Hence my rather particular dream-house.

And really, sixty dollars for a plastic kit that can be assembled with a few bucks worth of materials in a 3D printer? Sometimes, I feel like the revolution can't come fast enough!

Double Your Pleasure, Double Your Fun...

Last weekend Black Knight hosted its monthly 40K tournament, and this time there was a twist.  The tournament was 1500 doubles, with the partners decided randomly for the first round, then randomly within their score-bracket in the subsequent rounds.  As if that weren't enough, the missions this time wouldn't be the standard BRB missions, or even from Battle Missions, but inventions of the organizer himself.  Given that I quite enjoyed Battle Missions for their novelty, even with their slightly imbalanced natures, this was really something of a selling point to me.  And how did it all go?  Well, read on and find out!

1500 Doubles Shining Long Strike Cadre:
Shas'el w/AFP, missile pod, fusion blaster, hard-wired multi-tracker, hard-wired blacksun filter
3 x XV8 w/3 x twin-linked missile pod, 3 x flamer
3 x XV8 w/missile pod, plasma rifle, multi-tracker
3 x XV8 w/missile pod, plasma rifle, multi-tracker
6 x Fire Warriors
9 x Fire Warriors w/Devilfish, disruption pod
9 x Fire Warriors w/Devilfish, disruption pod
Piranha w/fusion blaster, disruption pod, targeting array
Piranha w/fusion blaster, disruption pod, targeting array
XV88 w/advanced stabilization system
XV88 w/advanced stabilization systemHammerhead w/railgun, 2 x burst cannon, multi-tracker, disruption pod

Round 1:

Partner: Mike Fleet (Eldar)
5 x Fire Dragons
5 x Dire Avengers w/Wave Serpent, scatter laser, shuriken cannon, spirit stones
5 x Dire Avengers w/Wave Serpent, scatter laser, shuriken cannon, spirit stones
5 x Dire Avengers w/Wave Serpent, scatter laser, shuriken cannon, spirit stones
5 x Dire Avengers w/Wave Serpent, scatter laser, shuriken cannon, spirit stones
Falcon w/scatter laster, shuriken cannon, holofield, spirit stones
Wraithlord w/shuriken cannon, scatter laser, 2 x flamers
Wraithlord w/shuriken cannon, scatter laser, 2 x flamers

Brent Grice (Eldar)
Farseer w/singing spear, runes of warding, Guide
Autarch w/Swooping Hawk wings, Avenger catapult, power weapon
10 x Dire Avengers, Exarch w/Wave Serpent, twin-linked missile launchers, shuriken catapults
10 x Dire Avengers, Exarch w/Wave Serpent, twin-linked missile launchers, shuriken catapults
5 x Pathfinders
Wraithlord w/missile launcher, bright lance
5 x Dark Reaper w/Exarch, Tempest launcher, Crack Shot
5 x Fire Dragons, Exarch w/Fire Pike, Tank Hunters, Wave Serpent w/2 x missile launcher

Shane (Necrons)
Anrakyr w/Command Barge
Royal Court w/3 x Harbingers, Solar Pulse
5 x Warriors w/Ghost Ark
5 x Warriors w/Ghost Ark
5 x Warriors w/Ghost Ark
6 x Wraiths w/3 x lash whips
5 x Scarabs
4 x Scarabs

Primary Objective: Retreat!! (points for each unit in the enemy's deployment area at the end of the game; 4 for HQs, 3 for Troops, 1 for Transports, 2 for Fast Attack/Heavy Support)
Secondary Objectives: Resource Denial (one objective per player, inside the team's deployment zone)
Deployment: Pitch Battle

With the first of the three rounds, I had a solid partner (Mike routinely tops the lists at BKG events) who claimed to have a solid plan. Unfortunately, that plan relied on my army to take one absolute monster of a beating.

I deployed everything on the table, with Devilfish screening my battlesuits, XV88s hiding in terrain, Fire Warriors sitting on objectives, my Hammerhead set out with a nice field of fire and my Piranhas ready to race out and try to accomplish something before their inevitable destruction. Across the table, an Eldar and a Necron army, with little in the way of heavy weapons but with Anrakykr to threaten possession of my Hammerhead's railgun and plenty of extremely survivable walls of AV13 side armour. And at my back? Nothing. The table edge. Mike left his entire army in reserve, trusting me and my cadre to hold off two full armies for at least two turns before any reinforcements could reach me. With no other option, my Tau dug in and did their best.

Unfortunately, their best left something to be desired, and that something was 'better dice'. I could not make a cover save, and my railguns seemed to be out of alignment, either refusing to hit or rolling 1s and 2s to penetrate. Worse, a squad of Wraiths came ghosting through the large building I was sheltering two of my Fire Warrior squads behind, and unsurprisingly ate both of them alive for no damage in return. Those Wraiths would continue to be the primary threat to my army, eating most of a Fireknife squad and killing a Wave Serpent and its Dire Avenger squad when they came in to assist. Anrakyr, meanwhile, managed to take control of my Hammerhead and put a round into the back of one of my Devilfish, exploding it spectacularly, and then directing some of his supporting Warriors-in-Arks to glance the railgun clean off the tank. Both Piranhas went down without firing a shot, and one of my XV88's succumbed to some nasty S8 fire from the Eldar; that inability to make any of my cover saves really hurt.

Thankfully, Mike's dice seemed to like him a little better, and my Eldar allies weren't too tardy about taking to the field. Pretty much everything arrived second turn, and aside from the Wave Serpent that tried to help hold off the Wraiths and was destroyed for its troubles, and a Wraithlord who refused to hide behind my Devilfish and was Reaper Launcher'ed out of existence for his troubles, they managed to contribute fairly well. The Wave Serpent containing Eldrad and the Fire Dragons raced up to the enemy's left flank to contest an objective, kill an Autarch and a Pathfinder squad (who hadn't really done anything) and force them to shift their attentions outwards, while the others went up the middle, trying with mixed success to blast a hole through the Necron's AV13 blockade. Worse, those Scarabs are just as troublesome as I'd heard they were, tearing armour points off Devilfishes and Wave Serpents and surviving a truly ludicrous amount of firepower. Mike lost his Wraithlords to Dark Reaper fire and had the Eldrad Wave Serpent and one other shot down, but managed to push forwards hard enough to get into the enemy's deployment zone. With most of my army either dead or busy, I could only contribute my Shas'el to the breakthrough, but at 4 points alone he was still a worthwhile addition to the score. Meanwhile, the enemy had their Wraiths (below half strength, and therefore not counted), Anrakyr in his Command Barge, two Wave Serpents and two units of Dire Avengers in our side, with one unit still in their Serpent claiming the objective the Wraiths had slaughtered my Fire Warriors around and the other trying, and mercifully failing, to shoot my last squad off their objective. With a last-minute objective contestation from my railgun-less Hammerhead, the game ended with one objective for us, two objectives unclaimed and one objective contested; a Major Win.

Initially I was inclined to chalk it up to Mike Fleet's strategy, but the more I think about it, the less comfortable I am with that. Yes, I left two of my three Fire Warrior squads to be eaten by Wraiths, but I also held the only objective and contested one of theirs, while also managing to shoot down a Ghost Ark and kill most of the survivors (a Warrior and a Cryptek survived, and nearly succumbed to the drones off one of my Piranhas) and battered down the Wraiths to the point that they didn't count for the secondary objectives. While I still made some bad calls (putting the Devilfish in front of the Hammerhead while Anrakyr was around, leaving those two Fire Warriors squads in multi-assault range of each other, not blasting Anrakyr's command barge with my railguns every chance I got), I also managed to anchor our team's entire strategy, not a bad trick for an expensive and fragile army. I'm not saying Mike Fleet wasn't a good partner, of course, I'm just saying that the more I look at this mission, the more comfortable I am taking equal credit. I really helped earn that victory.

Result: Major Win (15 points)

Round 2:

Partner: Matt Bucci
Hive Tyrant w/armoured shell, Old Adversary, 2 x twin linked devourers
Tyrant Guard
3 x Hive Guard
3 x Hive Guard
Doom of Malantai w/Mycetic Spore
3 x Tervigons w/cluster spines
10 x Termagants
10 x Termagants
10 x Termagants

Mike Fleet
(see above)

Andrew Bucci
Royal Court w/cryptek, eldritch lance, solar pulse, lord w/ressurection orb, MSS, 2 x warscythe
10 x Warriors
10 x Immortals
6 x Lychguard w/dispersion shields, hyperphase sword
8 x Canoptek Scarabs
Doomsday Ark
Doomsday Ark

Primary Objective: Open Season (modified kill points; 1 point for a unit at any time, but 2 points for any Heavy Support units in Turn 2, Fast Attack units in Turn 3, Troops units in Turn 4, Elites units in Turn 5, HQ units in Turn 6, and all units in Turn 7)
Secondary Objectives: Key Tactical Advantage (one point each player turn for each table quarter with a unit above 50% from both team members in it; quarters are contested by a single enemy unit in them)
Deployment: Dawn of War

Ah, the perfidious Eldar. One minute they're your best friends, the next, your worst enemies.

So yes, Matt and I went up again Mike and Matt's little brother, Andrew. With Night Fight in effect and the Stormlord on the table it was always obvious this was going to be a tough fight; even more so after they won the roll-off and opted to take first turn. Aggressive deployment of Andrew's Immortals squad left Matt and I completely shut out of most of the middle of our deployment area, and Mike's lone Wave Serpent with Dire Avengers was effectively invulnerable given what little we had to work with early on. Matt put down two Tervigons, one in each corner, and I deployed a Devilfish full of Fire Warriors and my Shas'el, one unit with each Tervigon.

I don't think the secondary objectives for this mission were quite play-tested out. Mike used the star engines on his Wave Serpent to race up into our left table quarter, while Andrew's Immortals moved forwards to the very edge of our right table quarter, and the rest of their armies came on their edge. This meant that, at the end of their first turn, they were up two-nothing, and with Night Fighting in effect and no way to get close combat units into the Immortals it was just impossible to shift both those units before the end of our turn, meaning that at the end of Turn 1 it was 4-0 for them. Sort of tough to come back from, particularly for a reason I'll get into in a minute.

Anyway, the Stormlord managed to keep Night Fighting in effect on Turn 2, giving Matt and I some serious trouble with his shooting, while using a Cryptek's Solar Pulse to clear the way for his own. One of the Doomsday Ark's managed to blast an XV88 to smithereens, while the other clipped my Deathrains and killed two of them, along with a handful of termagants. Mike's shooting wasn't particularly impressive, especially since I'd apparently been saving all my luck for this game and simply could not fail a saving throw. In return, Matt and I took down the Wave Serpent contesting our left quarter, shot up the Dire Avengers inside and sent them running, under half strength, towards their table quarter, while my Piranhas manoeuvred into position and thankfully survived nearly everything thrown at them, with the worst damage being one of them getting immobilized. We even managed to get close enough to the Immortals to break them with our shooting, and a detached pair of gun drones from a Piranha meant they couldn't check to rally next turn. But even with a tank destroyed and two units broken, we were still losing on the secondary objectives, with the end of Turn 2 having them up 6-1; we were contesting both of their quarters now, with Matt's Doom having left its spore pod neatly in the centre of the table, but they'd had them in their own player turn, and we only had one for ourselves. Third turn Night Fighting finally ended, allowing my Hammerhead and surviving Piranha to blow both Doomsday Arks to smithereens with some very satisfying strings of 6's and letting my XV88 take down another Wave Serpent, but otherwise things did not go well. The Doom's pod was destroyed, my Immortal-harassing Gun Drones were shot to pieces, Andrew's Cryptek squad charged and destroyed a Devilfish and his Scarabs scuttled in to contest both our table quarters. Try as we might we couldn't finish off those Scarabs, and an attempt to overwhelm the Crypteks with a unit of Termagants failed when they had to cross difficult turn, ended up I1 for their troubles, and were wiped out to the last before getting a single hit in. A disappointing end to the game, indeed.

That's right, I said the game ended on Turn 3. It turns out, and this was largely confirmed by everyone else who played on a table with even a single horde army, playing a 4-player 3000 point game in two and a half hours is pretty much impossible. It was particularly annoying here because, while we were starting to get the upper hand in terms of power on the field, we didn't have time to capitalize on it; both Doomsday Arks were gone, the Crypteks and Scarabs were nearly wiped out, two Wave Serpents were dead and the Wraithlords were so badly positioned nearly the entire game they accomplished almost nothing. With Night Fighting done superior Tau shooting could start to tilt the game for us again, and with the Tervigons still pumping out Termagant squads we could've pushed forwards and made it impossible for them to catch points on table quarters. Alas, however, it was not to be.

Result: Major Loss (3 points)

Round 3:

Partner: Harry (Orks)
Big Mek w/KFF
25 x Boyz, Nob w/power klaw
30 x Boyz, Nob w/power klaw
30 x Boyz, Nob w/power klaw
11 x Tank Bustas
15 x Kommandos, 2 x Burnas, Snikrot
20 x Storm Boyz, Boss Zagstruk
Trukk w/rokkit

Matt Bucci
(see above)

Tim (Blood Angels)
Librarian w/jump pack, stormbolter, Fear of the Darkness, Sanguine Sword
10 x Assault Marines w/2 x meltagun
10 x Assault Marines w/2 x meltagun
5 x Sanguinary Guard w/powerfist, chapter banner
Baal Predator w/search light, assault cannon
Baal Predator w/search light, assault cannon
5 x Devastators w/4 x missile launcher
5 x Devastators w/4 x plasma gun
Stormraven w/plasma cannon

Primary Objective:Getz Dem Bombz Boyz (5 objective 'bombs' that need to be defused by controlling them at the end of the turn; all non-defused objective 'bombs' will explode (S10, AP1, large blast causing 2D6 hits on an affected unit, striking vehicles on rear armour and ignoring cover saves) on a D6 roll of [8 – Turn Number])
Secondary Objectives: Kill 'Em All, Let Mork Klean 'Em Up (1 point for each unit above half strength at the end of the game; MCs and ICs count if they have more than half their original wounds, vehicles if they are not immobilized)
Deployment: Spearhead

If having one horde army on the field was tough, having two was almost impossible. We had two and a half hours for this game, and do you know how many turns we got through? Two. And that's with most of the Marine army and half the Orks in reserve the whole time!

So, with two turns obviously not much really happened. First turn I managed to kill the sergeant in the plasma gun Devastator squad with an XV88 and a couple of Termagants with the Hammerhead's large blast, but my Fire Warriors were out of range, there were no vehicles for my Piranhas to go after and most of my XV8 squads were badly positioned. Tim, meanwhile, sent his Trukk full of Tank Bustas into the middle of the board, while one of his mobs snaked around a ruin to get better room to manoeuvre next turn. In our opponents' turn, the missile Devastators killed one of my XV88s, while the plasma gun Devastators threw blast templates into a packed knot of Fire Warriors and Boyz clustered on an objective; my partner lost one or two, while I lost five out of six Fire Warriors. The leadership roll came up snake eyes, however; clearly, this sole survivor wasn't about to show fear while surrounded by eight full tall killing machines. Smart fellow. Matt managed some impressive shooting of his own, wrecking the Trukk with his Hive Guard's shooting and then killing off all but a few of the Tank Bustas.

Turn 2, the Kommandos came in from reserve, and landed nice and close to the Termagants defending the ground floor of the ruins the two Devastator squads were holed up in. There was some more manoeuvring on our side, with me disembarking a unit of Fire Warriors to rapid fire some Termagants that were getting a little too close for comfort, and Tim sending his Boyz down into the valley along the centre of the table to face the Tyranids. And this right here? This is where most of the time went. With bad targets my shooting remained unimpressive; I killed part of a Hive Guard squad and a few Termagants (though only one of the save covers saves the squad getting rapid fired had to take failed), and put some wounds here and there, but I just couldn't make it come together for me. Tim, meanwhile, was readying his attack, and when the assault phase came his Boyz multi-assaulted two units of Termagants, while the Kommandos went up against the unit in the ruins. The Kommandos, owing to going last, took some damage before they slaughtered their targets, while the Boyz, reinforced by the surviving Tank Bustas, tore through the Termagants in the centre of the table. In their turn the Tyranids counter-charged, while the Stormraven with its embarked Sanguinary Guard and Librarian, two squads of Assault Space Marines and one of the Predators, came on from reserve. The Predator put down one of my Piranhas, and one of the Assault squads melta'd my Devilfish to slag, but the other squad managed to roll snake eyes for armour penetration on the side of my Hammerhead; survival! Not, of course, that I would get to do anything with it.

The Tyranids counter-attacked in their turn, after dropping the Doom of Malantai close enough to our objective to contest. And close enough to start making those hated 3D6 leadership tests, though at least this time I knew I could take cover saves against them. That did us in, since the Fire Warriors in the melta'd Devilfish hadn't gotten far enough to claim the second objective on our long table edge, and the enemy still held one of their objectives quite firmly. While the Doom was getting them the primary objectives, the other team set about securing the secondary. The plasma gun Devastators laid down a withering hail of blast templates that decimated the Kommandos, while the missile Devastators failed to so much as scratch the paint on my surviving Piranha, and the Tyranids continued to be surprisingly decent shots, picking away at Fire Warriors, Boyz and XV8s. In the assault phase the Tyranids and the Orks went at it again, taking up most of the second hour of the game with the swirling madness of close combat happening in the centre of the table. In the end it didn't matter, really; the secondary objective was based on units above half strength surviving, and while we hadn't lost many, with three Tervigons on the field the Tyranids had actually managed to gain units over the two turns. The Tervigons all managed to breed themselves out over those two turns, but that hardly mattered at that point.

Result: Major Loss (3 points)

Overall Result: 20th of 24


A Sign of What's To Come?

Games Workshop updated their 40K FAQs a little while ago, and unusually for them they pretty much did a sweep across the board.  Most everything, from the rulebook to the codices, got at least a few new points put in there to clear up little questionable odds and sods. 

The exceptions?  Tau Empire, and Black Templar.

Here's hoping this means that the rumours really are true; that those two codices are the next up on the updating block, and that they'll be making their appearances sooner rather than later.  After all, it's not as though there aren't still a few questions about the Tau Empire codex, or even questions about the answers from the last round of questions about the Tau Empire codex.  And if you're already doing everyone else, you'd think they'd throw those two groups in as well.  Unless they knew it wasn't necessary; unless they knew, for instance, there'd be a whole new set of questions needing answers soon enough, so why bother putting something together now when they'll just have to do it all again in two or three or four months?

Fingers cross, my shas'os and 'els out there.  Fingers crossed...

Why I Loved Star Trek, and Hated Star Trek

So according to Topless Robot, Star Trek 2 seems to be getting underway. I'm a little surprised it's taken this long, given how well-received, both critically and commercially, the J.J. Abrams reboot was. You'd think they'd have wanted him to turn right around and get to work on part two as soon as possible. Maybe other commitments got in the way? Not being a great fan of Abrams, I really couldn't say.

I am, however, an unabashed Trekkie. Sure, I can't speak klingon or convert stardates in my head, and I haven't followed the SCE book series, or Vanguard, or IKS Gorkon, or a bunch of the other spinoffs. But one of my earliest memories is of getting to stay up to watch the premiere of Encounter at Farpoint, a gift beyond value from my parents as far as my little four-year-old self was concerned. Despite all the problems I can see with the episode now, at the time Star Trek was the most exciting thing ever, and Encounter at Farpoint, with Q and the jellyfish aliens and Data the android and Geordi and his VISOR, was as exciting as it got.

Why? Because it was new.

I don't mean to say that I loved TNG because I'd exhausted TOS. Far from it! I was actually well into my teenage years before I managed to catch The City on the Edge of Forever, justly one of the most well-regarded episodes of the TOS and, of course, the one that kept getting shown when I was stuck doing something I simply could not escape from. Spock's Brain, Catspaw, And the Children Shall Lead, Miri? Seemed like they were on every other day, and all hours to boot. City on the Edge of Forever? Scheduled exclusively during business hours in the school year, on weekdays, and only when I was in the absolute pink of health. Which is all to say, it wasn't just that they were 'new' episodes that I hadn't seen before. No, it was that it was new, and different, and interesting. Not all of it, of course, especially not during those first few years (two TOS remakes and a clip-show?), but for the most part TNG kept me enraptured by pushing forwards, outwards, onwards into the unknown.

And then came DS9. For the first few years it, too, was an exploration-focused show; runabouts would pop through the wormhole, find an interesting planet, have an adventure and then come back to the station. What it lost in the scale of TNG, with the massive Enterprise and the power of the Federation flagship itself, it made up for in scope. TNG explored the Klingons, and to a lesser extent the Romulans and the Federation itself; DS9 practically invented the Cardassians, the Bajorans and the Ferengi, and did in fact invent the various races of the Dominion, and still managed to give us a good look into the Klingons and the Federation, particularly Section 31. So DS9 kept me entertained because even when the crew wasn't going to new planets, they were telling new stories about old, familiar places. And the Star Trek cosmology was always loose enough for there to be more stories to tell.

But that was the high water mark for Star Trek. TNG and DS9 were on at the same time, and the TOS movies were in full swing, presenting Kirk, Spock, McCoy and the rest with new problems they had to use new aspects of their characters to resolve. It was, frankly, a creative golden age for the franchise, but it already contained the seeds of its own destruction.

The last season of TNG is generally regarded as being average, though the series certainly went out with a bang; All Good Things... is easily the best Trek finale ever produced. But the exact same writers, who were clearly burning out on episodic adventure plots, were immediately moved to the writing staff of Voyager, where their implosion would be completed. Voyager managed a few interesting ideas, mostly centred in the person of the Doctor and his status as a holographic life-form, but the entire underlying premise of the show worked against it; instead of going boldly, the crew of Voyager were desperately trying to get home. They were adventurers and explorers by a trick of fate, not conscious choice, and that problem kept nagging at me the longer the series went on. Yes, the Enterprise would fly away at the end of an episode, never to return, but you knew it was because they were off to the next big adventure, and some other Federation crew would follow along and keep learning about the planets and celestial flotsam and jetsam they discovered. But when Voyager flew away, it wasn't because they were off to another adventure, it was because they wanted to go home, and nobody would ever hear from these aliens again. Worse, Voyager had the worst character development at the time; by the show's end, Neelix, Harry Kim, Chakotay and even Janeway herself were exactly the same as at the start, Paris and Torres had changed somewhat, and of the whole cast only the Doctor and 7 of 9 managed to grow enough to move beyond being complete ciphers, fit for any plot or role. So, with nothing new in the way of planets, just the same, increasingly worn-out ideas we'd been seeing since TNG, and nothing new in the way of characters, Voyager seemed like the worst the franchise could throw out.

And then came Enterprise.

I still maintain that Enterprise has an absolutely excellent premiere. Broken Bow is full of action and adventure and wonder and intrigue and special effects and character conflict and potential for growth. Unfortunately, it's pretty much the only part of Enterprise that was. The series failed at all the same things Voyager did, but more comprehensively. Not only were the alien-of-the-week stories not exploring new and interesting ideas, they were often built on callbacks to earlier, better works. A series set hundreds of years before first contact was made with them managed to tell worn-out and even stupid stories about both the Borg and the Ferengi. Holodecks made an appearance, despite not having existed during TOS. And the less said about the finale, the better. And not only were the characters not going to grow, they were going to be even less well-developed; Hoshi, Reed and Maryweather would stack up poorly against Uhura, Chekov and Sulu, nevermind any of the contemporary Star Trek characters. The series had no idea where it was going or why, and that was reflected in the characters, who often seemed to just bumble themselves into a crisis, acting more like space tourists than trained professionals. The series limped along, undergoing repeated changes in tone and content, until it was cancelled after season four. The first modern Star Trek series not to run for seven years, it was widely considered a near-complete failure. And at the same time the TNG movies were limping along, showing little of the personal growth the TOS characters went through, engaging none of the interesting kinds of opponents, with the last two movies in particular so determined to revert to an older status quo it was a wonder Troi didn't end up in a V-neck jumpsuit again. Creatively, the television and film franchises were spent, and for a while it looked like Star Trek might follow Star Wars' example, and just be a book series for a nice long while.

And then, along came Star Trek.

I didn't like Star Trek. I thought it lacked charm, that the characters were too one-note, the villain too cliche, the science too awful. Yes, the science was too awful even for Star Trek. I didn't see any need for it to be a TOS prequel, and I still don't; if you changed the characters' names and swapped 'from the future' with 'from an alternate reality', you could tell the exact same story a generation after TNG/DS9/Voyager. I thought the plot was juvenile, and that several of the characters were juvenile as a result, Kirk worst of all. Gone was the cheerful, charming, slightly swaggering James Kirk of William Shatner, and in his place was a rather insufferable and smug young man that just happened to be named James Kirk, who had all the swagger and none of the charm or the accomplishments to justify it. But the worst aspect of the film, for me, was the staleness of it all. There was nothing new there. We're watching a fifty year old set of characters, who have yet to learn any of the lessons we already watched them learn or experience any of the growth we watched them experience, who don't explore anything, and don't contribute to our understanding of the Trek universe, and don't go up against any kind of interesting antagonist. Sure, Nero is kind of fun in and of himself, but as far as personal antagonists go he's no Khan or Chang or Borg Queen, and far as Earth-threats go he's no V'Ger, and he's sure no Probe! At best, he's a more entertaining version of Shinzon, and that's damning with faint praise indeed.

The problem with Star Trek is that it mostly forgot what the series is about. There's a reason there was a Russian on the bridge and a 'mixed-race' kiss in the 60s, a Klingon and a blind guy on the Enterprise D, reformed terrorists and a black captain and religious fundamentalism on DS9. Heck, for all its faults, Voyager gave us a female captain, a North American indigenous person as first officer, and the Doctor, the only 'non-human learning to be human' character Star Trek has ever really done right. Star Trek isn't just about exploring strange new worlds and new civilizations, but about exploring the human condition, tackling things from a new perspective and saying, do you see anything new now?

But somewhere along the way, somewhere in the middle of Voyager, the series started to lose track of that. And with Enterprise and the last two TNG movies, that failure was complete; Enterprise basically had the TOS bridge crew, just with the african-american and asian-american people switching jobs, and Nemesis was so lazy about moving backwards, rather than forwards, that aside from the new ship the story could have been an early TNG episode, Worf and emotionless-Data and beardless-Riker and all. Those three entries in the franchise set the stage for Star Trek, which completes the circle by actually regressing past the beginning, and running as far and as fast as it can from anything new or interesting or thought-provoking. Muslims and arabs? Homosexuals and trans-people and other LGBTTQ folk? Latinos? Sure, they're groups with whom we in the western world have long had a troubled and tumultuous relationship, but don't expect Star Trek to have anything to say about them! What do you think this is, some kind of spiritual successor to a progressive-minded and forward-looking property?

Star Trek isn't an action-adventure property. It uses those elements, absolutely; Wrath of Khan, Undiscovered Country and First Contact are some top-notch Trek stories built around solid action-adventure elements. But those movies are so much more than just shootouts and fist fights, from the emotional beats in Khan to the post-Glasnost metaphors of Undiscovered Country to First Contact's look at obsession, they have so much more to say. Even The Final Frontier tried to have something to say about faith and pain; it basically dribbled on itself trying to say those things, but they were there. But what does Star Trek say? That Kirk and Spock are friends, not because they respect each other and slowly built a solid emotional connection to one another, but because 'the universe wouldn't allow it' any other way? That blowing up planets is bad? That giving the Asian character who originally fenced and loved the Three Musketeers a cool katana is the laziest possible creative choice?

I loved Star Trek, and thanks to the novel series I still do, even if they've decided to jump over DS9's promising conflict with the Ascendants. But Star Trek? Well, really, what's to love?


Never a Matrix of Leadership When You Really Need It

So, The Darkest Hour hasn't exactly been a pop culture darling; two weeks after release it's still seven million dollars shy of earning back its budget, and it's apparently taken rather a drubbing in critical circles, as well. An action/adventure/scifi/horror movie released on Christmas Day, rather than the more usually appropriate 'somewhere in the high summer', it was always likely to suffer a bit of a beating for that rather perplexing studio decision.

And it turns out that said beating is entirely undeserved. The Darkest Hour is easily one of the most enjoyable, and most skilfully crafted, science fiction films in quite some time.

The poster, on the other hand...

One of the biggest complaints about the film surrounds the characters; they're flat, they're wooden, they lack depth or distinguishing characteristics. And honestly? It's not untrue. I went to see it with the lovely Madam Meagan and a mutual friend, Jena K, and none of us could really remember the names of more than one or two of the characters. They're strong enough archetypes, but they never really rise above being just that. That's not a flaw, however. The characters in The Darkest Hour are weak for the same reason the protagonist of a Harlequin romance is usually the equivalent of a plain and mousey housewife and the leads of so much YA fiction are ordinary, moderately-bullied kids who suddenly find themselves granted some special power or influence. The purpose of these characters is to serve as stand-ins for the audience, providing a variety of potential archetypes for the watcher to slot themselves into. And while that's a technique that's come into some disrepute lately, mostly thanks the Twilight's Bella Swan, it's still a perfectly acceptable stylistic choice, and an appropriate one here. You see, The Darkest Hour isn't trying to tell you a story about people. It's more or less uninterested in people, as distinct and particular individuals. No, what it's trying to do is make you feel, to tell a story through atmosphere, and in that way the characters are less 'independent individuals' and more a variety of emotional cues waiting to be called out for the experience of the viewer. The film, at least so far as I read it, attempts to do no more or less than evoke a series of strong emotional responses in the viewer. And I think it does so very well, actually.

The story is appropriately basic. Two pairs of Americans and a Swede are in Moscow when an alien force descends from the skies. The aliens either consume or block electricity, blacking out whole sections of the city and killing every cellphone in the area, and quickly display their hostility towards humanity. The largely-invisible and apparently-invulnerable assailants begin slaughtering everyone, contact with the aliens reducing a human being to a pile of ash, and the five characters hole up in a club's storeroom, waiting out the initial assault. Eventually they emerge to a Moscow nearly devoid of life, with aliens patrolling the empty streets seemingly at random, and decide (somewhat arbitrarily, but not unreasonably) to head for the American embassy. They're hoping to find survivors, or help, or a way home, and desperately avoiding the patrolling aliens, whom they can barely see and against whom they have no defence. It's wonderfully tense, reminiscent of the early section in 28 Days Later in which Jim wanders silently around an empty and brutalized London, and it becomes all the more macabre when one realizes that the blowing dust and grit swirling through the air are all that remain of the people of Moscow.

I'd almost describe The Darkest Hour as 'Independence Day, if it was done really well'. Like Independence Day, The Darkest Hour seems most interested in exploring things like fear, bravery, determination, cowardice and heroism. Both movies try to talk about how people act when the world, as they know it, has come to an end. Where Independence Day does this through the exhilarating spectacle of the full power and glory of the United States military, however, The Darkest Hour keeps the focus personal, on individuals doing whatever they can to survive, and even struggling to fight back against the aliens. At one point the characters come across an ad-hoc militia already feeling their way through anti-alien tactics, but where an American story would have them lionized as defenders of freedom and bold, larger-than-life heroes, here they're just people, people who refuse to either run or die, and so have no choice but to figure out some way to fight. Like everyone else in the story they stay comfortably human, bereft of the superstar charm of a Will Smith or the unbelievable competence of a Jeff Goldblum. There are no elite, hyper-capable heroes ready and waiting to save the day, here.
Just these schmucks.  Relateable, aren't they?

A word on the aliens. As an engineer, Jena K found the explanation of their motives and some of their properties dubious, to say the least. If you have that kind of background, the film may suffer somewhat, though probably no more than any other mass-market science fiction suffers. But the storytellers made what I think were two absolutely inspired choices that allow nearly any inconsistencies to be shrugged off. First, the humans never learn anything about the aliens beyond the most basic physical facts necessary to fight them. This ignorance allows any number of strange behaviours to be shrugged off, simply because we really have no idea why the aliens are doing what they're doing. They clearly have a goal they're pursuing, and they seem mostly logical about the way they go about it, but there are things they could do instead which they don't that seem obvious to us; by making the aliens entirely alien, the movie protects itself by keeping their reasoning utterly inscrutable, and thus somewhat beyond challenge. The second wise choice The Darkest Hour makes is this; at no point in the movie does anyone know what they're talking about. There are no experts, no labcoated geniuses who can provide word-of-god exposition, just people doing their best to figure out the aliens through what little they see of them. That keeps every explanation that is offered grounded in a certain uncertainty, and means you can never really take the humans' description of the larger issue of the alien invasion as gospel. Too many science fiction movies feel the need to have experts explain everything, usually with such laughably awful science that it drags the movie down. The Darkest Hour doesn't bother, because why the aliens kill dogs, or ignore the uninhabited planets of our system, or leach the power out of cell phones and light up bulbs as they pass isn't important. These things just are, and the human survivors have to adapt to it, or die.

Spoiler Alert: Most people aren't exactly the Borg when it comes to adapting.

And die they do. Obviously I won't spoil it for anyone, but I will say this; don't get too attached to anyone. There are no headlining stars in this movie, leaving it free to kill off anyone they please, and the movie takes full advantage of this freedom. You'll see some of the deaths coming because of the conventions of storytelling, but not all of them, not by a long shot. And that first shocking, 'they killed that character?!' moment does a beautiful job of passing on the feeling of fear these characters would be living under, constantly. You don't know how this story is going to end, any more than they do, because there is no star on the poster whose survival, along with a love interest and perhaps an adopted plucky child, is assured. There's nobody on the poster, nothing but an empty street full of the blowing remains of the dead, and the hostile, lethal touch of the invader.

Like I said; this movie is Russian.

 Faraday-cage Kitty agrees wholeheartedly.

Oh, and a note on the 3D. The film was shot with 3D cameras, so unlike hack-jobs like The Last Airbender or Clash of the Titans, the quality of the picture is still crisp and clear, and the film is only dark when it's supposed to be. That being said, I can really only think of one moment when the 3D was used for meaningful effect. If it's only available in 3D, don't let that stop you from seeing it, but if you have the choice, you might as well save the extra couple of bucks.


Seriously, Every Other Page They're 'Dynamic'

It's now 2012, and with the Tau's codex either the next up or the one after that, the rumours are really starting to fly. New alien allies, new HQ units, some limited Force Organization Chart swapping, maybe some new kinds of suits, some better CC units-

And that's where it often seems to come to a screeching halt, as far as Tau players are concerned. It's troublesome enough to have decent CC units coming from alien allies, despite the fact that that's exactly what alien auxiliaries are for, to plug holes in Tau doctrine. When there were rumours of some kind of Demiurg tarpit-style squad, plenty of people cried foul. Tau units, with anything even approaching close combat skills, immediately raise the hackles. But it gets worse, it gets oh so much worse, with the rumours of a CC-oriented battlesuit. The rumours have been so unspecific as to be useless; it could be anything from O'Shovah's bodyguard being more appropriately outfitted to a battlesuit armed with a 2+ shield generator and flechette dischargers to just giving suits the option of taking power weapons. Rather than be excited by the possibilities, however, so many Tau players seem set to cry heresy at the idea. The Tau, they complain, hate close combat.

But do they, really? There are only three quotes from Codex: Tau Empire that bear this out. First, on pg. 9, the book notes that Fire Warriors "see ranged combat as preferable to the somewhat brutal affair of close combat. They are not naturally equipped for such fights, preferring to use advanced weaponry rather than brute force to win battles." More damning is a quote on pg. 12, which baldly states that "The Tau regard close combat as primitive and always plan their attacks around the application of firepower." And so far as recruiting alien auxiliaries strong in close-quarters combat to balance the Tau's own weakness there, on pg. 10 of the codex it is noted that "The Tau do not necessarily seek out aliens that exhibit a particular penchant for close combat for example, regarding them instead as savage and unsophisticated."

Now, this sounds decisive. After all, it's right there in black and white; the Tau think close combat is a primitive and brutal affair, prefer ranged firepower, and consider aliens who are good at it 'savage and unsophisticated'. One might wonder what such Tau would make of Howling Banshees or Striking Scorpions, but no matter, the Tau are entitled to their prejudices just as any other race in 40K. And if there's anything more omnipresent than war in the grim darkness of the far future, it's prejudice. But the Tau, at least, do try to rise above their baser instincts, and there is textual support for that, as well. While the Tau may hold a dim view of close combat-oriented alien auxiliaries, on pg. 27 we learn that " the Kroot are afforded virtually the same level of respect as a Tau, since their skill at arms is much valued by the less physically able Tau. The Kroot are honoured for their martial prowess and are rewarded for their efforts." Given that the Kroot are equally average shots compared to Fire Warriors, but are armed with weapons inferior in almost every regard, it's difficult to believe that the Tau honour them so for their shooting prowess. And on the subject of alien auxiliaries not conforming to the Tau way of war, this isn't always regarded by the Tau leadership as a problem. For instance, on pg. 13 we learn that "As the Tau empire expands, the need to fight large-scale engagements has caused the purist Fire caste approach to be questioned and, at the suggestion of the Ethereal caste, large numbers of auxiliaries have been incorporated into the Tau military, the most common being the mercenary Kroot and the insectoid Vespid." Now the Vespid's unique neutron blaster might be of some worth for shooting-oriented Tau commanders, but the Kroot? Again, their guns are inferior in every way, and they're no better at shooting. All they do, that Tau don't, is close combat. And, of course there's the little detail that the Ethereals, the most civilized and honoured of all Tau, are exclusively armed with close combat weapons. How distasteful can it be, if the spiritual and temporal leaders of the empire practice it to the exclusion of all other forms of combat?

So, if there is support in the text both for the status quo and a possible change, what can explain the vehemence with which some Tau players put forth their opinions? And make no mistake, those who dislike anything even approaching a close combat unit in the next Tau codex hold their opinions strongly indeed. You can see it in the way they phrase things; it's never a matter of 'I don't think' or 'I don't like' or 'I would prefer', but rather declarative states, things like 'the Tau would never' or 'the Tau hate'. Well, and it might seem a little vain of me, but I'm going to go out and coin a little descriptor, here. The issue, so far as I see it, is one of prescription versus description.

And yes, I'd be more than happy to expand on that thought, thank you.

Those who complain that a close combat alien auxiliary or battlesuit are utterly and entirely anathema to what a Tau Empire cadre is consider the codex to be prescriptive; that is, they believe that it prescribes the way things should be. When reading a codex prescriptively, it is not only possible but almost inevitable that a strong sense of what is 'right' for an army would arise. In such a case, the idea is that what is presented in the codex isn't just a fictional politically and militarily historical document, but a direct statement from the game developers to the players, the proverbial Word of God. And like the most ardent of believers, prescriptive readers consider the Word of God to be eternal and unchanging, a definitive set of instructions on how things should be.

However, it is equally possible to read a codex descriptively. In such a case, the understanding is that the codex is describing how things have been and are, but makes no comment one way or the other on how things will go. A descriptive reading of a codex allows for significantly greater leeway in terms of visualizing a 'proper' army, though the tradeoff is that it can dilute any specific character the game designers have attempted to present (such as the infamous 'more Purifiers on the table than in the galaxy' build). However, descriptive readings open up the scope of the setting more for the player, allowing them to craft narratives and backstories that might clash, but don't outright conflict, with what is presented as being allowable in the codex. It's considered more of a guidebook, then.

I'm sure I haven't been so impartial as to keep from making it obvious what view I hold. Yes, I stand by a descriptive reading of Codex: Tau Empire, and indeed of every codex. Change is a good thing, so long as it flows organically from what has already been established. For instance, Codex: Necrons retroactively declaring the C'tan's power broken before the Necrons went into stasis was a terrible idea, not because the C'tan weren't a rather lacklustre idea, but because there are other stories of the Deciever running around in the 41st Millenium; if he was shattered into an endless number of fragments tens of thousands of years before humanity took to the stars, that raises some issues. On the other hand, the most recent Codex: Tyranids did an excellent job of moving that race's story forwards through the introduction of Hive Fleet Leviathan, producing units like the Tervigon and Mawloc, and even managed to re-introduce the Zoats in a sensible way. Both of these codices represented changes for their armies, but one was simply executed better than the other. And of course, even if it's not prescribed by an earlier work, change isn't always welcome; nobody ever outright said the Grey Knights didn't slaughter Sisters of Battle, after all. But on balance, for 40K to remain a compelling force, both in the fluff and on the tabletop, the game and the factions that populate it are going to have to change, even if only subtly. The alternative is to invite the collapse of interest in the property as nothing ever happens, something 40K already threatens with its 'humanity balanced on the edge of multiple disasters but never succumbing' background.

So, yes, seeing Fire Warriors armed with power-katanas would be an awful idea. The race has been clearly described as being small, weak and somewhat lacking in co-ordination, grossly outmatched in close combat by even unaugmented humans. But they've also been described as clever and inventive, constantly searching for ways to deal with whatever threat a hostile galaxy can present to them. Codex: Tau Empire describes a race unhappy with close combat and unsuited to it themselves, but don't mistake that for a document that prescribes any close combat units joining the cadres of the Tau on the field of battle.


Kirsten Dunst - Always Kissing Upside-Down

I don't really know if this technically counts as science fiction, but then, that's why I left my blog so vaguely sub-titled. Forward The Future isn't about science fiction, it's about 'all things futuristic', after all. And Upside Down is pretty futuristic looking.

I can't tell you how happy high-concept genre fiction makes me. So happy, in fact, that I'm not even troubled by what looks to be a fairly formulaic forbidden love story mixed in with an action-adventure-style chase film. I realize that my views on pop culture are in the decided minority, so if a fantastical story has to be grounded with more familiar elements to make it viable as a major motion picture, well, you can't let the perfect be the enemy of the good. After all, Hollywood-backed movies are at best art made by committee for a multitude of viewers, none of whom will be quite the same. The odds of any movie being perfect for you, as a distinct individual, are pretty close to zero. Even the best-written movie is still at the mercy of directors, cinematographers, sound engineers, actors, special effects engineers, stunt artists, and so on and so forth. And all it takes is for a few of them to give less than your perfect performance to swing things.

But that doesn't mean movies can't be enjoyed on their own, and Upside Down looks like an entirely enjoyable film. An idea as strange and inventive as this one deserves support, if for no other reason than to remind filmmakers that there's a market for the strange and the inventive.

Not that I won't take it to pieces afterwards if it warrants it, of course. There's being supportive, and then there's just being silly.